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The Conquistador of the Useless at the End of the World

Above: Encounters at the End of the World.
“I have always thought of my films as really being one big work that I have been concentrating on for forty years,” Werner Herzog stated in Paul Cronin’s interview compilation Herzog on Herzog (2002 UK release with a revised edition in the works). It is a sentiment he has repeatedly expressed in numerous interviews over the course of his career, all the incorporating images from his global travels into a collective, life-long gesamtkunstwerk that has charted the cultivation and maturation of his thoughts and visual expression over a period of decades. For that matter, the man has averaged an output of more than a movie a year since 1968. What the hell have I accomplished this year?
Even amidst this volume of output, Herzog’s most recent project is noteworthy for a few reasons. With Encounters at the End of the World (2007, 2008 release), Herzog has finally made a movie on Antarctica, the last continent necessary for him to have filmed quantifiably all over the globe. As one of the year’s top-grossing documentaries following a series of increasingly high-profile Herzog releases over the past three years, Encounters may mark a turning point in his career towards embracing a role culture had him pegged for ages ago: an entertainer. But not a clown—Herzog remains vocal that he despises that ridiculous fate which all too commonly befalls once-great directors. A fate worse than death, Herzog decries, and one he could never permit himself. I believe him based on the evidence depicted in Encounters as well as how it is depicted. This cinematic adventure cannot help but be informed by the director’s career-long consideration of modern man’s relation to the on-screen moving image. The broader question at the core of Herzog’s life-long film: what does our relation to this mirage reflect about our collective dependence on visual sensory perceptions to provide the final word on reality and being?
Herzog’s (I am tempted to say ‘inevitable’) documenting of this ultimate corner of the globe also conveniently provides a timely summation of his oeuvre for a variety of more obvious reasons. Primarily, he has regularly showcased extreme locales, and in this tradition, Encounters thrives on creative depictions of the exotic landscapes both above and below Antarctica’s ice. Secondly, Herzog has exhibited a long-term interest in scientists and the particular formulaic and visual languages they develop to translate the physical universe into models controllable for their studies. Filmed in and around the McMurdo Station research center, Encounters devotes much of its screen time to a broader cast of scientists than any other Herzog title, each illuminating a distinct and interesting field of study. The viewer gets glimpses into research about iceberg migration, climate change, penguin insanity, violent volcanoes, and vampiric underwater microorganisms. Finally, Encounters’ recognizably Herzogian imagery (sometimes recognizably staged) is a treat for long-time fans and is well-balanced with the signature deadpan humor of Herzog’s voice-over, in exceptional form here, which makes the film one hell of an amusing 100 minutes that are sure to inspire newcomers to explore more films by the director.
Then again, some are still turned off by the director’s deadpan sensibility and his increasing visibility as a character in his films. Richard Brody writing for TheNew Yorker recently took Herzog to task in a blurb that can be found here.  Whereas Brody refers to “Herzog’s self-righteous sarcasms” I defer to Amos Vogel’s more accurate estimation of Herzog’s trademark knack for documenting naturally occurring absurdist imagery. Film as a Subversive Art refers to Fata Morgana (1971) as “a cosmic pun on cinéma vérité,” and that concept can be applied to many of Herzog’s films. The idea of punning, normally defined only in relation to the literal word, initially seems incongruous with the recorded image, yet it has proven uniquely apt for Herzog’s visual choices: over the course of about 50 films now, Herzog has habitually turned his startling images into contradictions through dialectically clashing surrounding images in the montage or through words in voice-over and/or titling. Ultimately, this authorial style questions, prods, pokes, stretches and tests the benefits and pitfalls of our culture’s habit to take for granted the factuality of so-called documentary images. Just because the camera can reproduce one facet of our multi-dimensional universe onto a flat screen more accurately than any other previous medium has been able to, should the end-result, eliding as much information as it nevertheless does, still be granted authority on an event? Fata Morgana’s repeated static wide shots of desert horizons distorted through a silvery rippling filter of heat mirage provide a perfect example for this metaphorical approach to documentary. The viewer can distinguish a moving vehicle in the distance, but what type of vehicle is it? Is it coming or going? Even within a shot that meets all the definitions of cinéma vérité, optical illusion abounds naturally just as it can in real life, obfuscating the facts of what is transpiring to a point of meaninglessness. In such instances, Herzog likens cinema to a phenomenological dilemma: visual punning subverts the standard viewer response to the documentary image, making our reaction one of the uncanny by inseparably mixing equal parts uncertainty with visual fact.
Above: Fata Morgana (1971).
Herzog’s images frequently test the distance between experiencing an event first-hand and witnessing a documentary recording of it after the fact. Film viewing is treated as its own distinct physical and emotional experience, and Herzog makes fantastical artistic choices to emphasize this. As like-minded documentarian Errol Morris discussed last year in his New York Times blog as well as in his dual interview with Herzog in The Believer magazine, literal meaning can only be imposed upon a documentary photo or shot from somewhere outside the raw image. Like an explorer returning from the new world with specimens to display in his cabinet of natural curiosities, Herzog provides the visible evidence exotic enough to impressively confirm his travel to parts unknown. Yet he maintains enough control over their provenience to contextualize them as fabulously as he sees fit. This affords Herzog a certain exclusive authority about the phenomena of terrain he has visited, but he intentionally takes a playful approach to its presentation in order to emphasize the importance of wonderment as a first reaction rather than a more scientific impulse towards taxonomy. A striking example occurs after a scene in Encounters in which scientists discuss regularly hearing the mysterious, weird calls of the seals swimming beneath them under the ice, a noise so oddly distorted by the water that it seems impossible it could originate from nature. Herzog cuts from the discussion of this marvel to a series of shots of the scientists, bundled in thermal wear to the point of indistinguishable anonymity, pressing themselves to the ice as if straining to derive some message from the haunted swimmers. This series of patient and observational takes accentuates a spiritual reaction of awe to our surrounding world’s abundant mysteries rather than whatever data the scientists are collecting about the seals. The viewer of Herzog’s life-long film might notice that this bears a remarkable similarity to previous shots in Herzog’s career when he documented Russian pilgrims flush to a frozen lake, peering through the ice into the depths for a glimpse of the Lost City of Kitezh. Viewers of Herzog’s life-long film will probably also be unsurprised to note that the scenes in each film were staged. Both play as, relatively, objectively documented stagings of Herzog’s subjective improvisational impulse to direct his surroundings—participants/ actors symbiotically with the landscapes they inhabit.
Above: Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (1995).
Above: Encounters at the End of the World.
Myths and scientific examination are both born out of mankind’s observation of and impressions of nature. Often, it is only a matter of time before the scientific facts of today becomes the laughably naïve pseudo-scientific misconceptions of yesteryear. Likewise, cultural conceptions of what passes as documentary reality evolve, change and will always be relative. Herzog alludes to this early in the film during a clip from Ernest Shackleton’s in-studio recreations of Antarctica that are conspicuously unsuccessful attempts to depict the grandeur of Antarctica’s landscapes. But depending on where moving-image technology takes us, will our great-grandchildren’s generation be laughing at the “phoniness” of a cinéma vérité style shot 80 years from now (“That’s so silly…you can’t even feel the wind!”)? Herzog’s works, on a whole, train us to remain fluid in our imagination’s relationship to viewing the real world and the moving image. One visual fact can yield multiple interpretive realities, and his output in the past two years has directly tested this. Encounters’ outright companion piece, The Wild Blue Yonder (released theatrically and on DVD last year) features much of the same underwater footage that opens Encounters. Henry Kaiser, an amateur Antarctic diver and videographer who was coincidently introduced to Herzog while playing guitar on the score for Grizzly Man, originally shot the footage. “These images taken under the ice of the Ross Sea in Antarctica were the reason I wanted to go to this continent,” Herzog intones over Encounters’ introductory shots of the wondrously alien underwater universe. It’s a testament to Herzog’s productivity that he cultivated two such uniquely different films from the same seed: one a predominantly cerebral construction, the other the product of a physical journey. In the case of Wild Blue Yonder, Kaiser’s footage stirred Herzog’s imagination enough to spawn an outrageously tall tale of science-fiction loosely overlaid—the strings are always showing—upon a hodge-podge of tangibly ad hoc documentary found footage and hastily improvised narrative material shot with minimal cast and crew. For Encounters, the footage compelled Herzog to physically explore the cinematic possibilities of the last geography on Earth he had yet to film. These two very different films demonstrate a director who has outlived his overly simple reputation as a novelty of the New German Cinema by remaining youthfully outgoing in his experiments with film.
Above: Encounters at the End of the World.
Don’t know how I missed this earlier in the year! Great article…

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